Out of Germany: Reluctant MPs resist Christo's gift wrapping

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BONN - 'One member of the parliament told me that he can't support the project because it would be political suicide for him. It was a flabbergasting statement - and very flattering for me.'

The speaker - sounding like an East Europe-accented version of Woody Allen - is C V Javacheff, the Bulgarian-American artist, better known by his first name, Christo. Christo is the man who has wrapped everything from Paris bridges to Californian landscapes. Now, he wants to wrap the once-and-future German parliament in Berlin, the Reichstag.

He has recently been in Bonn to persuade German politicians to embrace his simple, impudent and charming idea. Christo first proposed wrapping the Reichstag more than 20 years ago. Then the Reichstag was in an almost forgotten corner of West Berlin, physically in the West but nudged up against the Wall in a kind of historical no man's land.

The deserted Reichstag was a parliament-in-waiting. In the 1970s and 1980s, West German politicians were reluctant to consider Christo's ideas. One president of the parliament complained that the authorities in East Berlin 'would not understand'. Now, there are no more Communists to provoke. Instead, Christo's proposals are considered by some to offend the sacredness of the Reichstag itself. Christo, not surprisingly, rejects that view.

The bespectacled artist - a New Yorker for the past 29 years - tells his enthusiastic Bonn audience, in best east European English: 'I don't think Reichstag is virgin.'

When listening to Christo one is occasionally distracted by a nagging philistinism - the 'It's-just-a-pile-of-bricks' school of thought. Christo's Reichstag project would cost around dollars 7m (pounds 4.6m) with all the associated labour costs. Is this not just some gigantic con, where municipal authorities all over the world are persuaded to part with vast sums in order for a New Yorker to put up glorified curtains?

Artistically, it may be a scam. But the enthusiasm is real. The installation of Christo projects is paid for by Christo himself - or rather, by his associated company, the JVC Corporation (his initials, reversed). Christo's own earnings come from the sale of the preparatory drawings, for which he cheerfully rattles off the list of prices and purchasers - a gallery in Tokyo here, a collector in New York there.

He produces statistics to prove how much money is ploughed into the local economy when people come to see his projects. He even talks about recycling: 45,000 square metres of material, which wrapped the ancient Pont-Neuf in Paris in 1985, was later donated to the United Nations for use as refugee tents in Afghanistan.

One of Christo's most enthusiastic supporters is Rita Sussmuth, the president of the German parliament. But Christo is working on Ms Sussmuth's 660 parliamentary colleagues, too, to give the project the go-ahead.

He argues that he has to mix the colours of the political parties, as other artists mix paints in the palette. 'My chemistry is the CDU, the FDP, the SPD. Every little step is directed towards realising the project,' he said, referring to the Christian Democrats, the Free Democrats and the Social Democrats.

The execution of the project itself would use 120,000sq m of material. And 200 rock-climbers would be employed to install the project, which would take up to three days. It would be removed after a couple of weeks.

There is still resistance. Gradually, however, Christo and his devotees may be reaching a turning point. Chancellor Helmut Kohl, initially an outspoken critic, has apparently withdrawn into neutrality. Wolfgang Schauble, leader of the Christian Democrat parliamentary group, was also strongly opposed, but has softened somewhat (and agreed to meet Christo to discuss the plans). Other members of parliament, meanwhile, have even been coaxed into the Christo camp.

Christo's greatest fear is that, by the time the politicians' answer comes, it will be too late. He insists that he will not wrap the Reichstag once the rebuilding of the heart of Berlin with Sony corporate offices and the like has got under way. If the politicians wait too long they might, therefore, miss their chance. That would be a pity. The unique city of Berlin, with its new-found respectability, is in danger of becoming almost ordinary. It ought not to lose the ability to shock and surprise.